a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

I spy with my little eye....

There is a wonderful literature sharing scheme in operation across London's public transport system; a sort of transitory library with an extensive commuter membership. It's in evidence on buses, across Tube carriages, even on the more crowded platform. Watch closely and you will witness the participants, avid readers of other peoples' newspapers and books, masters of the over-the-shoulder paper perusal. They lean back slightly, discretely angling themselves to read their neighbours papers, often without their noticing. Newspapers of others are far easier to read than another's book; a small article doesn't require the knowledge of earlier pages to make any sense, and you are also likely to have got to the end of it before its possessor turns the page, leaving you with no idea how the story ended.

I confess that I am an occasional over-the-shoulder reader. Sometimes one can't help but do it. Our Tube and buses are so sardine-tin crammed full at rush hour that one's line of sight is filled with a vast range of sci-fi novels, broadsheets (tricky to handle in a small space, rather antisocial), copies of Metro and chick lit. I often reach the end of an article shoved in front of my face before I realise I'm even absorbing the words rather than staring into space. Pulling out my own book I would usually elbow two people in the ribs, then overbalance treading heavily on someone's foot if the bus or train were to jolt slightly when I'm turning the page. So it's really far more socially considerate to read a book or paper already on display! The owner of the literature being stealthily read should also take the practice as a display of appreciation for their choice of reading matter, a sort of "that looks interesting, what good taste you have!" nod of approval.

Sadly many public transport users label this habit annoying, cheap and rude, yet it can also be seen as environmentally-friendly, practical and informative. If one hasn't the time to grab a paper on the way to work, or watch the news, I am hugely grateful to the adjacent businessman who has had the sense to pick up a copy of The Times on his commute. (If he were empty-handed, with no reading material to redeem him, I would be far less willing to overlook his crashing his briefcase into my knees.) I can arrive at work, roughly informed of the day's headlines, feeling that I have not wasted my commute, eyes glazed over staring out into the darkness of the Tube tunnels, or the fogged up window of the bus.

Surely the sharing of papers must also play a part in decreasing circulation figures; making it more sustainable from an environmental point of view. No need to pick up your own copy of the free newspapers distributed on London's streets in the afternoons (the "Purple Tops", such as thelondonpaper and London Lite); share someone else's, or if you get really lucky, find a discarded one waiting for you on your bus seat. This is the jack-pot of the London literature thief. You can merrily peruse the details of who fell out of which club drunk the night before, and what Boris has done now to "improve" our city, without missing your bus whilst queueing in the newsagent. Such papers are like the seat-back magazines you find on planes and long distance trains, except not usually three months out of date and covered in coffee stains; they remain wonderously relevant as remaining copies are cleared off buses and trains at the end of the day. (Often though by around 7pm they may be very well-read, the odd interesting article torn-out here and there. And someone else has usually attempted the Su Doku puzzle and failed, leaving it frustratingly half-finished.)

But, and here is the really satisfying part, when you're finished reading about house prices in Shoreditch and the best bars in Brixton you can perpetuate the practice, by leaving it behind for another traveller - share the knowledge, pass it on! We Londoners should embrace the chance to practise our recycling skills, whilst imparting knowledge to our fellow travellers. Go on, share your newspaper with your neighbour and make London's public transport system a veritable learning establishment, for a better informed Britain!

1 comment:

  1. This brings back so many memories of life on London transport! I confess freely I always used to be one of those terribly tight-***ed types who resented anybody daring to read over my shoulder; but also fell with relief on any discarded newspapers at moments when I'd not had anything to read at hand;-)!
    The French often remark on how much the Brits read, especially on public transport.

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